September 25, 2017

The Cross-Pressured Bundesliga: Here Comes the New TV Deal

For approximately these past two years, the Bundesliga has been at an identity crossroads. On one hand, the league wants to preserves the distinctives that make it unique among the world’s biggest football leagues: supporter club ownership and the 50+1 rule, wonderful Matchday atmospherics, cheap tickets and concessions,subsidized public transit to-and-from matches, Traditionsvereine, and deeply embedded grassroots supporter cultures in general.  On the other hand, the league wants — put bluntly — to become bigger, better, and more lucrative by embracing the forces of globalization and market forces in the areas of TV rights, TV-friendly scheduling, private club ownership, foreign tours and marketing, and higher profiles player transfers.

Although many of these pressures have exerted themselves on the league since its founding in 1963 (see Ronald Reng’s Matchdays for such details lurking inside his narrative) and inexorable professionalization of German football, the force of their pressure has greatly accelerated thanks to recent developments, like the Premier League’s record-breaking behemoth TV deal; the Bundesliga’s own bigger domestic TV deal; the eroding of the “50+1 rule” thanks to clubs like Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, or personalities like Hannover’s 96 Martin Kind; the increase of off-season international tours and marketing; rumblings about Chinese investors; etc. By these indicators, the Bundesliga is certainly at a kairotic moment. The time is ripe: something is happening here, but do you know what it is, Mr. Jones? Because, my American prophet always says it best: “The times, they are achangin’.”

The responses have varied. Some reject the new trends, while holding fiercely to the old values; others fully embrace the here-already future; and some, like Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert, think we can have it all. We are all meeting at the crossroads, it seems. Put another way, in the framework of my favorite philosopher, Charles Taylor, the Bundesliga is “cross-pressured” by all these forces. And what emerges from the cross-pressuring will define what becomes of the Bundesliga.

I plan to explore the cross-pressuring of the Bundesliga in a series that explores the various facets of the situation and its surrounding debates. My goal is to clarify the issues and what’s at stake in them, so that all of us who care about the Bundesliga can enter the debate and future events with more intentionality and foresight.

If you missed it, you can read part 1 (interview with ESPN FC’s Stephan Uersfeld).

***  ***

Here in the second part of my series, I am writing about the new Bundesliga TV deal, which begins at the start of this upcoming 2017-18 season. This new deal is worth 4.64 billion €, which is a massive 85% increase from the 2.5 billion € TV deal the Bundesliga just wrapped up this Rückrunde. Naturally, the new deal is record-breaking for the Bundesliga, as most new TV deals always already are for sporting entities during these heady days of the sports TV rights bubble.

Given the influx of new money about to pour into the Bundesliga, it’s worth examining the deal’s various facets, as well as its present and future implications, as we try to figure out what the new deal will mean for our favorite league in these cross-pressured days. Moreover, the television rights topic and its attendant issues — e.g. the increasing visibility of football’s commodification, the continued spectacle-crafting of football, the displacing of supporters via television scheduling, the ever-increasing emphasis placed on revenue in football, and the fuel feeding the dizzying increase in player salaries — firmly underscore the Bundesliga’s TV deal as a prime topic for my series.

Finally, investigations into contemporary football don’t get far without discussing television, specifically TV rights deals. Simply put, professional football, as an industry with ungodly piles of mammon coursing through its arteries is not possible without television rights money. It’s that simple. And given the global reach of, especially, European football, there’s piles of money to be had in broadcasting football. (For example, let’s not talk about how much I forked over for a subscription to a certain American TV network to watch the Bundesliga.)

Why TV Rights Money?

Let’s establish a basic framework by posing an obvious question: why is television so important? The answer takes the form of a basic premise about sports, television, and TV rights deals. Sporting events still occupy a unique and privileged place in the business of culture: they need to be shown live, which means that television broadcasters fall over themselves bidding for the rights to show sporting events. Live events bring in audiences — eyeballs staying in place for hours at a time, thus advertisers can cue up then bombard us with their marketing content during this viewing time. In the case of football, this ad content is the ambient space around which football matches happen to take place. We see ad content on  kits, ad hoardings, the seemingly endless “brought to you by” bits, commercials during halftime, brand “logo-quilts” filling the media mix zone or even on top of pitch grass, etc. It’s everywhere. Advertisers, broadcasters, and sporting entities all depend on each other in this tripartite arrangement, an arrangement totally contingent on the uniqueness of live sporting events.

This basic premise has become the driver behind the astonishing rise of revenue in modern sports. Without television and TV rights deals, we don’t get multi-million € player salaries or unholy transfer fees. In Toulmin model terms, TV deals are the financial warrant and backing that football rests on. So it’s no wonder that the Bundesliga’s new TV deal was big news last summer.

Bundesliga clubs have high hopes for this new TV rights deal; their way of thinking runs: more TV rights money = more clout for the Bundesliga. In this context, clout has two facets. First, in a social status sense, more money gives the league more prestige and signals something like an implicit promise of higher status to prospective star players. You know, the “soft” attributes that drives many of the world’s best players to the Premier League. Second, and in a concrete sense, more money gives Bundesliga clubs — across the board — more purchasing power on the transfer market. Thus, every club’s player pool get qualitatively better. At least theoretically.

This hope is warranted by the trail already blazed mostly by the Premier League and Serie A, which were the first big leagues to exploit this revenue stream in an innovative way, and for awhile made the most money from TV rights revenue. Upon the new deal’s advent, the Bundesliga will now have Europe’s 2nd most lucrative TV deal. That is until inevitably La Liga ups its revenue when its new deal is due in 2019. And who knows what Serie A will try to pull off in 2018. Thus runs the bubble cycle, alas. And let’s not even think about the next auction in 2019 for the Premier League domestic TV rights.

TV rights revenue has become the single largest income stream for big European football. It’s not that other revenue streams don’t exist, however, they obviously do. It’s just that, in many cases, these streams are tapped out, which is mostly the case in the Bundesliga, who, in the past, given the Bundesliga’s relatively weak TV rights deals, had to be innovative in creating revenue from other streams, especially in commercial dealings. For example, at one time Bundesliga clubs were the most successful in securing the biggest sponsorship deals from large corporations.

So aside from TV right money, it’s not clear where significant chunks of revenue will come from. Unless, of course, the Bundesliga tragically decided to take the Premier League route by significantly raising the prices of Matchday tickets and further corporatizing the Matchday experience with gaudy hospitality packages, etc. Let’s cross our fingers it never comes to this. However, just this week, Bundesliga clubs all raised their season ticket prices — a bit, just a bit — in a slippery slope escalation feared by Bundesliga lovers. Even under the older TV right deal, Bundesliga clubs only generated 20% of their income from Matchday revenue, according to data from UEFA. Furthermore, considering the cultural phenomenon of and expectations around cheaper tickets in Germany, it makes much more sense of Bundesliga officials look elsewhere for revenue.

So TV rights money it is. The Bundesliga wants to be bigger and better. Look out, Premier League. At least this is the rhetorical gesture behind the new TV rights deal and its logic.

The Basics of the New TV Rights Deal

According to Deutsche Welle, The Bundesliga’s new TV deal running from fall 2017 through spring 2021 is worth 4.64 billion € in revenue. This is the big bad bran’ spankin’ new magic number. Which means the new per season rights are 1.159 billion €. For the first time, the Bundesliga is breaking the 1 billion € per season mark, joining Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premier League in this elite bracket.

Before spelling out the new rights deal’s concrete details, some quick context is needed for wrapping our minds around the new magic number. The Bundesliga wound down its old TV rights deal in which it “only” earned 2.5 billion € during 2013-2017, equating to 628 million € each season. So the new deal is a heralded 85% increase:

Starting this fall, the Bundesliga is almost doubling its television revenue to the tune of an additional 2.14 billion €. Hence the increased the clout argument I discussed in the previous section and the hope that more star players will be attracted to the league.

Time for the details. Sky Germany will remain the Bundesliga’s leading broadcaster in 2017-2021 with 572 live matches each season — a lion’s share of the meat. Additionally, Sky will also now broadcast all 2.Bundesliga Saturday matches.

However, for the first time (and here is the more important detail), thanks to a German regulatory ruling and the resulting rights auction, Eurosport, a paid-subscription channel, will broadcast the Friday night matches and the new Monday night matches, giving the network 43 Bundesliga matches each season. Additionally, according Stephan Uersfeld, the free-to-air public station, ZDF, will broadcast the season opener, the Friday night game on Matchday 17, and the first match of each Rückrunde. Finally, Deutsche Welle reports that Germany’s public access stations have rights to broadcast Bundesliga highlights.

Sporting managers around the league rejoiced. Even Bayern. So did Sky’s shareholders. Of course.

How Did the Bundesliga Pull off Bigger, Badder TV Rights Deal?

At this point, you should be asking a big question: just how did the Bundesliga get a 85% revenues increase from last time? My answer is two-fold. First, the increase is partially the product of big European football continuing to appreciate in value as a commodity (according to Deutsche Welle, the Bundesliga is currently the world’s 10th most valuable televised sporting commodity), especially as club revenue continues its unstoppable rise. Second, the increase is partially the product of Eurosport entering the Bundesliga broadcasting game. Competitors increase bidding, which increases revenue, as you’ll see.

As a subscription service, Eurosport suddenly introduces competitive bidding into the Bundesliga TV rights business. Although Sky won the lion’s share of the TV rights meat this time, the Bundesliga is certainly hoping that Eurosport, after getting its foot in the TV rights door, will plunk down more money in the auction next time as the network tries to gain a larger share. Because even if Eurosport fails to win a larger share, it doesn’t matter. By simply bidding for more, Eurosport will drive the price up. This phenomenon is precisely the reason why Bundesliga officials are jubilant about a TV rights auction. And why the league is more than happy to say bye-bye to the old “single-buyer” model. Thank you very much, regulatory ruling. Suddenly, there’s a subscription TV market for the Bundesliga.

Moreover, the Bundesliga’s hopes for an ambitious Eurosport TV rights market position aren’t exactly “magical thinking.” Significantly, lurking behind Eurosport is Discovery, its parent company, who with this TV rights purchase seems poised to further grow its sports media portfolio, which could very well mean that the next Bundesliga TV rights auction will get very competitive indeed. Again, increased competition between TV companies is the goal here.

Hence, league officials pronounced the new TV rights deal as a “gap closer,” moving the Bundesliga closer to Premier League-levels of revenue. And you can see why — at least for the immediate future.

The Bundesliga’s New Funky Distribution Model

The tricky thing with TV rights deals is that the money must be distributed, somehow. Naturally, every league distributes the revenue in its own unique way, and trickiness emerges because, in Europe at least, TV rights revenue is not simply distributed equally among all clubs. No, European football is too wild west capitalistic for such communist solutions, in contrast to us fair-minded Americans (wink, wink), whose major sports leagues distribute revenue to all clubs equally, regardless of status or prestige.

In general, European leagues distribute TV rights revenue according to some sort of meritocratic or status-driven model that gives the most successful clubs a larger share of the revenue pot. For example, in the Premier League, the domestic TV rights money is distributed in the following manner: 50% divided equally among all clubs, 25% divided among clubs according to league position, 25% given to clubs based on how often they make live TV appearances.  (This graphic illustrates the distribution model.) For example, in 2016-17 Sunderland (last place) earned about 63% (£98m) of what Chelsea earned (£150m); and in the previous 2015-16 season, Aston Villa earned about 66% (£66.2m) of what top earner Arsenal pulled in (£100.8m). By European standards, the Premier League’s distribution model is relatively equitable; it helps that every club automatically receives £55.5 million, thanks to the “equal share” category. However, this is not the case in Spain’s La Liga. Famously, Real Madrid and Barcelona have earned a gigantically disproportionate amount of the revenue, so much so that the Spanish government had to intervene in the negotiations for the current TV rights deal, which, by centralizing the bidding process, finally gave more money to the other clubs, yet also ensured that Real Madrid and Barcelona maintained previous levels of revenue. Of course.

In European terms, the Bundesliga is somewhere in the middle between the Premier League and La Liga in terms of equitable revenue distribution. For example, the revenue gap from most (Bayern) to least (RB Leipzig) is “only” 20 million € (39 million vs. 19.5 million, in other words a 50% difference from Bayern’s perspective) from the 2016-17 season. The revenue spread for 2015-16 was pretty much the same. This old distribution model was based on two criteria: 1) a simple flat distribution of money to all clubs, and 2) a weighted distribution based on table finish and table position throughout the season. This model mostly favored clubs with consistent top tier of the table finishes; e.g. Leverkusen, Schalke, and Mönchengladbach have followed Bayern and Dortmund in lockstep in previous seasons, revenue distribution-wise. A handful of Traditionsvereine, known as “Team Marktwert” — Köln, Hertha, Eintracht, Hamburg, and Bremen — argued that this model didn’t reward their status as traditional powers in German football, thus locking them out of more revenue. They wanted more, naturally. And they got a bit more, as you’ll see in the next paragraph.

The Bundesliga’s new distribution model is based on four criteria, instead of the old two. Our own Max Regenhuber has already analyzed these new criteria. I strongly recommend that you read his piece, but in the meantime it’s worth simply listing the four criteria for big picture purposes:

  1. 5 Year Performance Ranking (70%).
  2. Table region competition (23%).
  3. Sustainability (5%).
  4. Academy Output (2%).

Here’s a quick summary of the four criteria. #1 tracks the performance of all Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga clubs (as two separate leagues) over rolling five year periods; it is re-calculated every year. #2 tracks which clubs finish within certain table tranches, e.g. spots 1-6; note: this criterion measures the Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga as a single continuum of spots (i.e. 1-36). While #3 is a funny one, measuring each club’s 20 year performance again as a continuum of spots across the top divisions (i.e. 1-36); basically, the “Team Marktwert” criterion. Finally, #4 rewards teams for giving first team minutes to youth academy prospects.

Got that?

Four criteria. Four measures of success.

So which clubs do you think will benefit the most from the new TV rights deal? Fernsehgelder.de already has the answer, of course. Bayern and Dortmund are still the top two earners, while Mönchengladbach moved past Leverkusen into 3rd. The biggest mover is Köln, who moved up from 14th to 9th in the updated revenue table. Largely, however, most clubs will be roughly earning the same piece of the pie proportionally — it’s just that the pie is bigger now. (For example, Bayern will be earning about 59 million € from TV revenue in 2017-18, about 21 million more than last season. As for Köln, the Billy Goats are jumping up from 25 million to bout 45 million this season. Huge jump. Entire articles can be written speculating about how clubs spend their extra money.) One curio: thanks to their promotions and RB Leipzig’s green status (thanks criterion #3!), Hannover 96 and VfB Stuttgart leapfrogged RBL, who still sit in 18th place on the revenue table. It’s tough being the new boys.

It’s All So Cross-Pressured

Here we are. New monies are pouring into the Bundesliga. Your club will probably have more money to spend on the transfer market. You’re stoked and have wasted hours of your life scouring football news sites, errrrr transfer rumor aggregators, to see who your club is sniffing around. It’s golden times.

Not so fast.

The new TV rights deal will not suddenly guarantee an increase flow of elite footballing talent into our favorite league, as I’ll argue briefly. However, and even more significantly, the new TV rights deal carries with it significant philosophical and ideological values that are already permeating the Bundesliga. Remember, these are cross-pressured times. In other words, if you get something, you’re also giving something away. This zero-sum phenomenon is what I want to examine in more depth. But first let’s see if the new TV rights deal fulfills the “gap closing” hype.

Yes, in an aggregate sense, more money is pouring into the Bundesliga thanks to the new deal. However, more TV rights money is pouring into just about every other European league as well, at least the one who matter within the Bundesliga’s immediate ambit (the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A). In other words, there’s more aggregate money period. For everyone, for now. And given that the likes of the Premier League and La Liga have a head start in this game, it’s extremely unlikely that the Bundesliga will leap frog ahead of them in the TV rights game. What’s more likely is that the Premier League will stay far front of everyone else and that La Liga will, once again, pass up the Bundesliga when it negotiates its next TV deal in a couple years.

Sure, the Bundesliga probably moved past Serie A permanently in terms of TV revenue, but moving past the Premier League and La Liga seems impossible, given the former’s nearly 20 year head start in driving up revenue through competitive TV rights auctions and the latter possessing two major global commodities also known as Real Madrid and Barcelona. I’m not sure how the Bundesliga ever moves past these two leagues in terms of global prestige. All of which means that big clubs from these two leagues will always have more money to spend on the transfer market than Bundesliga clubs not named Bayern Munich, a state of affairs no different than the current transfer market status quo. Whoof. So look for the Bundesliga to turn its transfer market attention, not toward competing directly with equivalent clubs from England and Spain, but toward equivalent Italy and France, against whom the German league will have more purchasing power. Perhaps the Bundesliga has gained a slight purchasing edge in this particular area. Otherwise, it’s a on-going game of catch up for the Bundesliga in chasing the Premier League and La Liga.

So much for all that new status and clout, huh?

Furthermore, as we’ve seen in the recent case of the Premier League, player agents extract a lovely pound of flesh when negotiating transfers for their stars, knowing full well that clubs are suddenly flush with extra cash and are on the market to spend it. In other words, English clubs have been overpaying for talent, relative to “true market value.” For example, CIES Football Observatory tracks this phenomenon in monthly reports, and the results are fascinating. (You can read about CIES Football Observatory’s methodology here.) Although this phenomenon is most vividly seen in the league sitting on top of the revenue food chain, it’s likely this trend will become more pronounced for Bundesliga clubs when negotiating transfers with agents of players from leagues below the Bundesliga’s level of TV rights revenue, like Ligue 1 or the Eredivisie. What I’m trying to say is that, quantitatively, Bundesliga won’t be able to suddenly afford more star caliber players than before, rather that the prices for these players will likely to rise.

Thus, it’s not even clear that the new TV rights deal even “works,” at least according to the “gap closing” rhetoric laid on thick by Bundesliga executives.

Look, I don’t have the economics training nor time to give you all the full Tyler Cowen or “Swiss Ramble” treatment here, but let’s just say that I’m very skeptical that the Bundesliga’s new TV rights deal will do much to change the transfer market status quo in favor of the Bundesliga, given the wider context in which all TV revenue rises across the board in Europe and given the rising costs of footballing wages. For the sake or my favorite sporting league in the world, I can’t wait to stand corrected, but I doubt this day will ever arrive.

However, the efficacy of the new TV right deal is hardly my main concern. Instead, I think it’s more important to discuss the ways in which the new deal illustrates the Bundesliga’s “cross-pressured” status. Because it does. This discussion reveals certain philosophical values under-pining the TV deal, which in turn reveals the Bundesliga’s ideological hand as the league navigates the crossroads between the bogeyman of “modern football” and the league’s cherished cultural and social status (whether true or not). In the next paragraphs, I’ll lay out some philosophical concerns about the new TV rights deal.

First, there’s something like the logic or system implicit in the new deal. Basically, the TV deal makes it obvious that the Bundesliga, on the administrative level, is pursuing the market logic of “bigger and better.” Whether its revenue, clout, exposure, star-power, global branding, etc., this mantra views growth as an unqualified good. That is, it really doesn’t matter what the final goal is (e.g. catching the Premier League), since the goals themselves are interchangeable, given that the underlying logic is simply growth for growth’s sake. These values roughly fall under the rubric of what many derisively call “modern football.” And look, this logic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, are you okay with it? Did you even notice it was lurking around? As a football fan, it’s important to clarify this question and reflect on it.

This question is the same one I posed in a Rückrunde piece on RB Leipzig. In this piece, I argued that, under the spell of the lovely football and weariness from tired story-lines, we largely ignored the “RB Leipzig Question” last season; we tacitly accepted the club and its message. Not that there’s anything wrong in doing this per se. Something like this RBL situation is at stake with the new TV deal, I think, that should cause us to pause and reflect on what’s going on. Obviously, we can’t wish away the TV deal — it’s here, it’s settled, and the money will arrive. Bigger and better is already happening in the Bundesliga, folks. Are you okay with it? Moreover, I’d argue that the new TV rights deal, more than anything else so far — even the seemingly doomed 50+1 rule — shows that Bundesliga leadership is already playing by “modern football” rules. Think about it: the emotionally-charged rhetoric on either side of the 50+1 rule debate seems like a cover after the billions of Euros the successive TV deals have brought and the steps taken along the way: first, subscription-based channels carrying the football; second, a TV rights auction. These two steps speak volumes. Again, are you okay with it? However, I should be fair, what else were Bundesliga administrators supposed to do: not negotiate TV deals? Of course not. I don’t point fingers at them. Rather it’s the larger story of the commodificaiton and “made-for-profitization” of football, a story that’s almost as old as football itself, yet increases in scope and visibility in each succeeding decade. In this light, the new TV deal falls in line with developments as old as Adidas pioneering shoe sponsorships, Jägermeister finding the front of an Eintracht Braunschweig kit, Bayern hiring a business manager, and the very creation of the “professional” Bundesliga itself. Are you okay with it?

And if you’re not? This question lurks behind Stephan Uersfeld’s recent question on Twitter:

Stephan’s tweet implies, perhaps ironically, that philosophically and economically the Bundesliga has already “crossed the rubicon” into something like modern football; his point being that since this crossing over has already happened, what will fans do about it? Actually, I think his point is that nothing will happen, because there are too many moving targets. I mean, suppose you philosophically reject the logic driving the Bundesliga’s new TV deal, then what? I bet you won’t be walking away. I know I won’t, otherwise why would I have just written a few thousand words on it? Stephan’s follow up tweet makes precisely this point. Finally, I ask again, are you okay with it?

It’s not that you need to do something drastic about the Bundesliga’s TV deal, like boycott the league. Hardly. Instead, I want you to think for a minute about what the deal means for the league — and what it implies for the league in terms of the market logic and system the Bundesliga buys into.

If you’re not convinced by me sticking the new TV rights deal under the rubric of “modern football,” let me outline some slippery slope territory the Bundesliga finds itself in. Let’s go back to the 1992. As Uli Hesse explains in Tor! and Bayern, the big billionaire Leo Kirch (via his Premiere World entity and SAT1 channel) had purchased the Bundesliga TV rights. Consequently, Bundesliga clubs made more money and expanded their budgets. However, the German public, unaccustomed to paying subscription fees for their Bundesliga coverage, left Kirch in the lurch, as fewer than 2.5 million Germans (Kirch’s threshold number for breaking even) subscribed. Unable to recoup the one billion € contract, Kirch’s company went bankrupt in the largest insolvency in post-WWII Germany to date. This event became known as the “Kirch Crisis,” and many German clubs, like Kaiserslautern, were suddenly riding huge debts. As a result, free-TV (ARD) carried Bundesliga matches, as did Rupert Murdoch’s Sky empire, which, given his vast media properties, didn’t need to rely on German subscription fees in the same way that Kirch did. However, subscription TV slowly gobbled up more and more Bundesliga matches over the next decade. Which brings us to today when when free-TV gets a paltry handful of matches each season. For a decade, the Bundesliga has slid down this slippery slope into full blown subscription TV land. Sure, this development has brought more money to clubs, but it’s also changed the way Germans watch the league, as well as the way the Bundesliga is presented.

Speaking of slippery slopes, the new TV rights deal introduces a second manifestation of this tricky ground: the Monday night matches. Of course, the slippery slope I’m talking about involves the displacment and marginalization of Bundesliga supporters. In this case, it’s the away supporters who are negatively impacted. Uli Hesse laid out this problem in a 2015 piece on ESPN FC. Basically, Monday matches will severely restrict Germany’s vibrant culture of away fan support, a key factor contributing to the league’s vaunted Matchday atmospherics. For years, supporters have voiced concern about Monday night matches, only to be ultimately ignored by Bundesliga officials. Sure, in the grand scheme, this scheduling problem isn’t a back-breaker for Bundesliga culture yet, but it’s a step on a slippery slope. If fans can be displaced to please TV providers, what’s next? This precedent is the fear. Furthermore, the promise of Monday night matches worked as an incentive for Eurosport in the rights auction, and shows that league official, at the very least, just don’t understand what makes their league so special, as 11Freunde‘s Benjamin Kohlhoff argued. If true, then you have to wonder when the league will blunder into another poor decision or two that negatively impacts fans. (Don’t worry, I’ll be talking about supporter culture in my next piece in this series.)

In these two particular ways, the Bundesliga is now a (slightly?) less accessible cultural good than it once was. I use the language of cultural goods here intentionally — a language borrowed from sociologist and historian David Goldblatt‘s compelling framework for thinking about what football is and who it belongs to. In The Game of Our Lives, Goldblatt’s sociological history of England’s Premier League, he argues that football leagues and clubs are less corporate/legal entities than they are cultural goods of “collective drama and invented rituals and solidarities” (p. 288), or put another way, football is “this thick web of values, rituals, histories, and identities” (p. xv). Goldblatt articulates this notion even more succinctly in a manifesto he published in the Guardian: “Football is part of our common culture, a fabulous heritage of more than a hundred years of play, a repository of powerful identities and solidarities” (emphasis mine). I like the word repository here, implying that football clubs are public holders of meaning, transcending the willy-nilly of players, executives, and sponsors coming and going through the years.  This concept offers a grounding for defining what football clubs are all about and for why we care so much about them. As such, footall clubs are invaluable cultural goods, offering part of a ground any given local culture stands on.

At a superficial glance, the Bundesliga’s new TV rights deal and the Monday night displacement of supporters is far removed from the repository concept Goldblatt employs. In the new framework, Bundesliga clubs are increasingly fulfilling the logic embedded in their status as the limited companies (plc.) under the parent clubs they really are. Recall that Bundesliga clubs began branching off from the parent clubs as plcs in 1995 to keep up with the Bosman Ruling, which opened the floodgates for wage and sponsorship spending in European football. The 50+1 rule was created as a check on all the crazy new spending by stipulating that at least 51% of a plc’s shares had to remain in possession of the parent club. Thus, investment, but not ownership, could flood into the Bundesliga. Twenty years later, it seems the Bundesliga clubs are finally maximizing their roles as plcs, while (slightly?) jeopardizing their roles as repositories for meaning. And let’s not even talk about the 50+1 Rule’s doomed life.

But I’m not naïve. We have to pay for our football. As an American watching the Bundesliga from abroad, I’m keenly aware of this dynamic, and in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ll be ponying up my cash to a certain TV provider to watch the Bundesliga next season. Look, I’m a direct beneficiary of Bundesliga TV rights deals, which enable me to watch live feeds of my favorite sporting thing in the world. I wouldn’t be here today, writing this piece, without this benefit. However, the 1995 comprise between investment/revenue (plcs) and cultural goods (the 50+1 Rule) seemly wildly out of balance, as the spirit of this arrangement is disregarded, while the concrete barrier (the 50+1 Rule) is viewed as an outdated annoyance that must, and will, be abolished. This imbalance is probably the most significant slippery slope the Bundesliga finds itself on right now.

Goldblatt’s The Game of Our Lives provides a cautionary tale about where the path toward hyper-commercialization can lead a football league. In his analysis of the Premier League’s rise to dominance, we find a league existing on the fumes of its roots as cultural repository, while bringing in billions and billions in revenue. In this case, the Premier League isn’t so much “cross-pressured” as much as it is transformed into a finely-tuned, yet profligate, machine for revenue. And the Bundesliga stands at the threshold of this same transformation. With its whole-hearted embrace of subscription TV and competitive rights auctions, the Bundesliga is concretely signalling its intentions to follow in the footsteps of the Premier League’s transformation.

Finally, aside from the TV rights money, television itself has the unique ability to power a football league’s transformation into the hyper-commercialized machine feared by the “against modern football” folks. As a medium, television has the power to shift the meaning and craft the narratives of a football league. As Goldblatt observes in The Game of Our Lives, in the Premier League era, football is transformed into church, theater, festival, with a large dollop of soap opera (p. xvii). This last trait is a direct product of the mega and constant televised coverage of football. It’s compelling packaging — I won’t lie. However, this “soap opera” narrative packaging levels down the meaning and experience of football into a non-stop cycle of melodrama. We can’t help but think about and interpret football in the terms by which we consume it. To echo Marshall McLuhan‘s famous koan, the medium is the message. As McLuhan explains in the book of the same name: “Television demands participation and involvement in the depth of the whole being. It will not work as a background. It engages you” (p. 125).  I’m no fool, I/we are (to some extent) already products of the televised coverage of the Bundesliga; or put differently, the meanings we have are partially a product of televised coverage. Especially me, since I live in the U.S. and experience live matches purely through television. I am fully aware of this fact. And yet through televised coverage, as well as my extensive reading and conversing with other fans online and in person, I’ve learned much about the Bundesliga’s on-the-ground meaning in Germany, a meaning that many of us fans abroad add to our own frameworks for why this league is so special.

Even a topic like the Bundesliga’s new TV rights deal is personal for me — and maybe for you, too. At least it should be. After all, this league — more than any other — has taught me how important it is for us fans to reflect on, discuss, and actively participate in making meaning out of football, specifically the Bundesliga. For this reason, we better be honest about the fact that our favorite league is cross-pressured and sitting at an identity crossroads. And in the case of the new TV deal, the league itself has revealed its hand.

The following two tabs change content below.
Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. NYCFC wins at home | US Soccer Players

Comments are closed.